Bollywood newcomer Bhumi Pednekar experienced her “Cinderella moment” when she was offered her first film, Dum Laga Ke Haisha (DLKH), releasing in the UAE this Thursday.
But her definition of that fairy-tale beginning is slightly different from our conventional understanding. The former casting agent for Yash Raj Films (which also produced DLKH) was asked to put on 20kgs, and her prince charming, Prem (Ayushmann Khurrana), in this romantic comedy was one surly, shallow piece of work.
“I am a foodie and when I was asked to gain weight, I ate everything — not the smartest food choices. I was feasting on butter chicken for breakfast and eating 12-inch pizza for dinner. It was like being in Disneyland for eight months… pure pleasure,” said Pednekar in an interview with tabloid!. The 25-year-old, who loves food and films, weighed 66kgs before filming and stood at a proud 86kgs when the cameras were switched on.
Her pleasure keeps multiplying because Dum Laga Ke Haisha has the makings of this year’s first sleeper hit. It has earned a UAE release this weekend primarily due to its stupendous box-office success in India and a favourable critical reception after its February 27 release.
Set in the 1990s, DLKH is a tale of a couple who are navigating the tricky dynamics of an arranged marriage. High-school dropout Prem, who owns a cassette store in India’s holy city of Haridwar, is forced into marrying an overweight girl by his overbearing father (Sanjay Mishra). His family root for their union, despite his resistance, because Sandhya’s an educated woman with good teaching job prospects and her earnings could help her groom’s family financially.
“One of the main reasons it worked wonderfully in India is because it’s rooted in our reality. It’s unlike any other Yash Raj film: it has no gloss or women in chiffon saris,” said Khurrana, alluding to India’s top production house, which has made a fortune selling dreamy romances. A mean dad, an unhappy husband and a determined bride hoping to win the affections of her new husband form the crux of the trailer.
“I feel a sense of deja vu when Dum Laga Ke became a success. Just like Vicky Donor [his first film in 2012], there were minimal expectations from this one since we did not promote Dum Laga Ke Haisha heavily in India and it had a staggered release… Ultimately, it’s about a fat girl who marries a thin, uneducated man. He doesn’t like her and gradually grows to like her. We go on to show that sometimes it’s just not about looks but whether an odd-looking couple can connect on a deeper level,” said Khurrana.
He describes his character Prem as “an uneducated, simpleton living in la la land”. He may not be a catch in the groom market, but Prem isn’t shy about dreaming about marrying an ideal 36-24-36 size girl or even a size-zero girl on good days. But their language of communicating — the film’s tagline is “love comes in all sizes” — isn’t a series of mean-spirited fat jokes, the makers insist.
“I was conscious that we shouldn’t end up making fun of overweight people and were sensitive about the topic… Through this couple, we go on to show that the answer to a person’s happiness is not necessarily to lose weight but to be comfortable in who you are. This couple were not on the same page and the film goes on to show how they end up being on the same page,” said director Sharat Katariya, who also wrote the screenplay. After seven years of rejection and unsuccessful shopping for producers to back DLKH, Katariya decided to make the script his “writing sample”.
A routine submission of this script to director-producer Maneesh Sharma led to Aditya Chopra from YRF greenlighting the project.
“By then, I had come to terms with the truth that nobody wanted to produce it… but every script has its own destiny,” said Katariya.
It’s not just the script that took time to shine. Lead actress Pednekar served her time before her Bollywood breakthrough. She was 17 when she first accepted a job at YRF studios’ six years later and with a successful stint in their casting division, she landed her first acting job.
“But I didn’t take on the job as a teenager thinking that this is my way to get into acting in films. I was shy and I did not even discuss my acting ambitions with people... I was asked to do a mock audition to help candidates get an idea of what we were looking for. Then I remember, Shanoo [Sharma, her boss and casting director of YRF] telling me that I just finished my round one,” said Pednekar. The rest is history.
For city slickers Khurrana and Pednekar, playing a couple from a rustic city untouched by capitalism or mall-mushrooming was a tough job. Khurrana even had an accent coach live with him for over a month to nail the regional accent. But his biggest triumph?
“That scene where I had to carry Sandhya, who was 20kgs heavier than me, on my back. I practiced that move for two months. I had a crazy gym schedule where I mixed weight training and cardio. I used to climb stairs with that exact weight strapped on. Initially, we hired a body double. But he couldn’t carry her and therefore, I can proudly say that I did my own stunts for this film,” said Khurrana with no hint of malice. Currently, the team is living the dream of striking it big. DLKH has just completed its 50-day run in India and has made exponential profits.
“We didn’t expect the film to become what it has. I was confident that the film would be appreciated… but to get such a huge reaction on Twitter, Instagram and [from] critics was not something we anticipated,” said Pednekar.
While its director is still basking in the glory of the congratulatory telephone call that he received from veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah (who’s known to be acerbic while critiquing films), Khurrana will cherish the note from Amitabh Bachchan lauding him for nailing the Haridwari accent.
“It’s bigger than any award that I may ever receive. I feel like I have arrived now. I can sleep well now,” said Khurrana.
And as per his deductions, his latest romantic comedy will endear all, despite Prem not being “instantly likeable”.
“These days, only a superstar or a super script can guarantee a film’s success. If there’s a superstar, then people don’t necessarily look for an ingenious, unique script. But if there’s no superstar, then the content is king. Dum Laga Ke Haisha proves the latter.”
“Our strategy was simple and honest. We didn’t believe in pushing the film down audience’s throats and pushing viewers to go and watch it. This film worked due to word-of-mouth. It’s a certified hit based on the merit of the film, No appearances, no TV shows... It has no big songs, no big action sequences and so its success was a pleasant surprise,” said director Sharat Katariya.
“Most Hindu families go to Haridwar seeking peace or for the last rites of their relatives. Many feel that the city has a calming effect on you... The idea was to write a story of an unhappy family in a place where many go and seek out peace,” said Katariya.
“My first crush was a plus-size Bengali girl, who was a kathak dancer,” said Khurrana.
“I did not intend to break any stereotype with my first role. But now that I have, I want to take the mantle forward... I knew that my debut wouldn’t be like other regular actresses,” said Pednekar.
“Watch out for Anu Malik’s music and Kumar Sanu’s songs. It will make you nostalgic about the ’90s era,” Khurrana said.